For three summers I’d throw shorts and a t-shirt on over my tank suit, slide on sunglasses, and walk down to the YMCA in my Ohio small town. I’d pass the neighborhood homes, the high school, the football stadium where I once played in the high school band, the Y tennis courts, and the refreshment stand where my friends worked. Already hot from the Ohio sun, I’d chat with staff at the desk, sign my time sheet in the back room, and head out to the lifeguard chair. I’d climb the ladder on the white chair, throw my towel beneath the seat, smear on suntan lotion, and sit watching.
Being a lifeguard felt like an assumption in my life, and possibly genetic expression. My mother had been a lifeguard, a camp waterfront director, and an Olympic training camp hopeful. Her sister had been a lifeguard, and her two daughters were swim team stars and lifeguards. My sister was a guard at the Y, and her daughters also became swim team stars and guards years later. Plugged ears, wet towels, and bleached out hair were our destiny.
The outdoor job had bonuses. Fresh air and a dip in the cool pool once an hour was heaven. I ended the summer tan and toned. But as a summer job, guarding meant nonexistent wages. Pay was less than a two dollars an hour. On a hot day, I could drink most of that away at the snack bar. If a rainy spell hung over mid-Ohio, I’d lose work. I’d spend hours watching little boys sneak a quick dunk of their friend and wonder if I were crazy not to waitress or work at the bank. I could always use new jeans or a coat for college. But for three years I’d end up back in the chair, watching for any hint of an accident to happen, like the other females sharing my DNA did.
One summer that accident happened, but not in my watch area. Each hour we rotated to another white chair, and this day I rotated out of the diving area into the mid-pool. The day was Ohio hot, temperatures in the mid 90s and the sun burning anyone without sunscreen. Noisy kids, moms, and retired folks filled the pool. I kept my eye on boys showing off to a group of giggling girls. A shrill whistle blew three short alarms to my left. The guard stood at her chair, gestured for help, and jumped in. Seconds later she pulled a lifeless figure to the side and began the life-saving measures we had practiced. His body, white and pasty without breath in his lungs, slowly returned to normal color. Another child had innocently jumped off the board onto him and he had gone unnoticed near the bottom for precious minutes. A few more and the Y would have had its first tragedy. The incident shook me.
No longer was lifeguarding a simple summer college job. We were protecting lives, including the lives of playful, vulnerable children. The summer weeks at the pool became my bildungsroman, my time of coming of age, written in chlorine and wet bathing suits. My boyfriend broke up with me and the Y tennis courts where we played became a tearful reminder of his faithlessness. I had my first professional scolding when my boss reprimanded me for appearing distracted at my seat (it was probably true, that sun was a dehydrating killer). Worse yet, lifeguards were targets for male attention. One man asked me out while his wife was in the hospital giving birth. A boss asked me for a date, drank too much, and took me back to the medical room (I held my own). A high school football player in a thoughtless, impulsive moment, climbed up my ladder and grasped and jiggled my breasts. He was summarily kicked off the football team for his senior year when I reported the incident.
Still, the summers at the Y were a crucible for learning about life as a lifeguard and a woman. I watched one mother with her little boy splashing in the toddler area and knew that motherhood needed to be in my life ahead. I learned that men, included bosses, should be well vetted. I discovered sunscreen is a necessary precaution and friends make any job and life itself survivable. One Y friend became a life-long friend, spanning decades of college, marriage, kids, and now grandkids.
Most of all, I learned what it meant to follow in the tradition of the women in my family. The women swimmers and lifeguards in my family are strong in body, endurance, commitment, and patience. I think those skills were honed in the lifeguard chairs.